Friday, November 22, 2013

The New Factory Model

We've talked about the factory model in education forever-- the little worker-bees-in-training lined up in ranks and files, learning how to plug away assembly-line style. Truth be told, it's not exactly one of the most endearing features of American public education, and there have been regular attempts to disrupt the model, from elementary classrooms furnished with beanbag chairs and carpet to the Harkness tables of Philips Exeter (I spent a summer as a student there decades ago-- they really do make a difference).

But the newest tweaking of the model is not a good one. It's one critical part of how NCLB and Son of NCLB have poisoned the atmosphere of schools.

Under the old factory model, students were products. We were the workers, our classrooms were the assembly line, and the students were the toasters we were cranking out.

Under the New Reform Model, students are no longer the product. They are workers, and the product is test scores.

Charter schools are the most obvious demonstration of the implications of this approach. What do you do with a factory worker who won't produce a good product? You fire him. What do charter school operators like Steve "65% Graduation Rate" Perry do with students who won't produce good scores? They fire them.

Son of NCLB now requires teachers and schools to produce certain score levels to survive. And so, we are no longer there to serve the students and provide them with the education they need. Now, students are there to produce the scores, the data, that we need to survive.

When "reformers" tout a student-centered approach, they don't mean we should focus on the needs of the student-- they mean we should focus on getting the student to cough up the scores we need.

This is the new factory model, in which students are not toasters, but assembly line robots. If this model persists, here are the things we can expect to see:

-- Charters and private schools will continue to fire any student-worker-robots that fail to produce.

-- Students who can't produce will be labeled defective. After all, if my program (purchased from Pearson) is good, and my delivery system (that well-trained TFA body) is good, then the only explanation for a low student score is some sort of learning defect. Watch for diagnoses of learning disabilities, adhd, etc to go up.

-- While schools chase the top score producers like a pro basketball team tries to recruit the best point maker, some public schools will be left open specifically to warehouse the poor producers. Profit models will develop to make some money from this (cyber schools have a well-developed model of signing these low performers up with big promises and then ditching them after the check clears and before the scores come in), but those will be unsustainable, so we'll see lots of churn in this sector of the market.

-- Schools and, regrettably but inevitably, some teachers will come more and more to see students not as their purpose and focus, but their enemies. "Those damn kids in this years tenth grade are holding out on us and refusing to produce the scores we need to maintain funding. We've got to beat them somehow before they put us out of business." There is something profoundly damaging to a school dynamic when a grown adult's livelihood depends on forcing a ten-year-old to bubble in the answers that we need.

How do we deal with it? It will depend on the building and the administration to some large extent, but ultimately it's up to us to make the best choices in our classrooms.

I dealt with the old model by ignoring it. In my mind, my students are craftsmen, building the best artisanal versions of themselves that they can. I'm some sort of sherpa guiding them to a peak. I'm some sort of guide helping them read a map to a country only they can live in.

With the new model, I think we may have to reimagine ourselves as warriors. Our students, ourselves, our schools-- we have all been thrust into hostile territory where our survival and their graduation depend on meeting a series of senseless challenges, while at the same time we have to acquire the things we need to survive. In their case, students need to acquire an actual education in something other than Bad Test Taking. In our case, we need to acquire the knowledge that we have actually helped the people we went into this profession to help, and have not simply reduced them to assembly line robots. It is not always an easy fight, but we have to remember that we and our students are fighting on the same side.

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